Wicked Captain Walshawe, of
by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Peg O'Neill Pays the Captain's Debts
A very odd thing happened to my uncle, Mr. Watson, of Haddlestone; and
to enable you to understand it, I must begin at the beginning.
In the year 1822, Mr. James Walshawe, more commonly known as Captain
Walshawe, died at the age of eighty-one years. The Captain in his
early days, and so long as health and strength permitted, was a scamp
of the active, intriguing sort; and spent his days and nights in
sowing his wild oats, of which he seemed to have an inexhaustible
stock. The harvest of this tillage was plentifully interspersed with
thorns, nettles, and thistles, which stung the husbandman
unpleasantly, and did not enrich him.
Captain Walshawe was very well known in the neighborhood of Wauling,
and very generally avoided there. A "captain" by courtesy, for he had
never reached that rank in the army list. He had quitted the service
in 1766, at the age of twenty-five; immediately previous to which
period his debts had grown so troublesome, that he was induced to
extricate himself by running away with and marrying an heiress.
Though not so wealthy quite as he had imagined, she proved a very
comfortable investment for what remained of his shattered affections;
and he lived and enjoyed himself very much in his old way, upon her
income, getting into no end of scrapes and scandals, and a good deal
of debt and money trouble.
When he married his wife, he was quartered in Ireland, at Clonmel,
where was a nunnery, in which, as pensioner, resided Miss O'Neill, or
as she was called in the country, Peg O'Neill—the heiress of whom I
Her situation was the only ingredient of romance in the affair, for
the young lady was decidedly plain, though good-humoured looking, with
that style of features which is termed potato; and in figure she was
a little too plump, and rather short. But she was impressible; and the
handsome young English Lieutenant was too much for her monastic
tendencies, and she eloped.
In England there are traditions of Irish fortune-hunters, and in
Ireland of English. The fact is, it was the vagrant class of each
country that chiefly visited the other in old times; and a handsome
vagabond, whether at home or abroad, I suppose, made the most of his
face, which was also his fortune.
At all events, he carried off the fair one from the sanctuary; and for
some sufficient reason, I suppose, they took up their abode at
Wauling, in Lancashire.
Here the gallant captain amused himself after his fashion, sometimes
running up, of course on business, to London. I believe few wives have
ever cried more in a given time than did that poor, dumpy,
potato-faced heiress, who got over the nunnery garden wall, and jumped
into the handsome Captain's arms, for love.
He spent her income, frightened her out of her wits with oaths and
threats, and broke her heart.
Latterly she shut herself up pretty nearly altogether in her room. She
had an old, rather grim, Irish servant-woman in attendance upon her.
This domestic was tall, lean, and religious, and the Captain knew
instinctively she hated him; and he hated her in return, often
threatened to put her out of the house, and sometimes even to kick her
out of the window. And whenever a wet day confined him to the house,
or the stable, and he grew tired of smoking, he would begin to swear
and curse at her for a diddled old mischief-maker, that could never
be easy, and was always troubling the house with her cursed stories,
and so forth.
But years passed away, and old Molly Doyle remained still in her
original position. Perhaps he thought that there must be somebody
there, and that he was not, after all, very likely to change for the
The Blessed Candle
He tolerated another intrusion, too, and thought himself a paragon of
patience and easy good nature for so doing. A Roman Catholic
clergyman, in a long black frock, with a low standing collar, and a
little white muslin fillet round his neck—tall, sallow, with blue
chin, and dark steady eyes—used to glide up and down the stairs, and
through the passages; and the Captain sometimes met him in one place
and sometimes in another. But by a caprice incident to such tempers he
treated this cleric exceptionally, and even with a surly sort of
courtesy, though he grumbled about his visits behind his back.
I do not know that he had a great deal of moral courage, and the
ecclesiastic looked severe and self-possessed; and somehow he thought
he had no good opinion of him, and if a natural occasion were offered,
might say extremely unpleasant things, and hard to be answered.
Well the time came at last, when poor Peg O'Neill—in an evil hour
Mrs. James Walshawe—must cry, and quake, and pray her last. The
doctor came from Penlynden, and was just as vague as usual, but more
gloomy, and for about a week came and went oftener. The cleric in the
long black frock was also daily there. And at last came that last
sacrament in the gates of death, when the sinner is traversing those
dread steps that never can be retraced; when the face is turned for
ever from life, and we see a receding shape, and hear a voice already
irrevocably in the land of spirits.
So the poor lady died; and some people said the Captain "felt it very
much." I don't think he did. But he was not very well just then, and
looked the part of mourner and penitent to admiration—being seedy and
sick. He drank a great deal of brandy and water that night, and called
in Farmer Dobbs, for want of better company, to drink with him; and
told him all his grievances, and how happy he and "the poor lady
up-stairs" might have been, had it not been for liars, and
pick-thanks, and tale-bearers, and the like, who came between
them—meaning Molly Doyle—whom, as he waxed eloquent over his liquor,
he came at last to curse and rail at by name, with more than his
accustomed freedom. And he described his own natural character and
amiability in such moving terms, that he wept maudlin tears of
sensibility over his theme; and when Dobbs was gone, drank some more
grog, and took to railing and cursing again by himself; and then
mounted the stairs unsteadily, to see "what the devil Doyle and the
other —— old witches were about in poor Peg's room."
When he pushed open the door, he found some half-dozen crones, chiefly
Irish, from the neighbouring town of Hackleton, sitting over tea and
snuff, etc., with candles lighted round the corpse, which was arrayed
in a strangely cut robe of brown serge. She had secretly belonged to
some order—I think the Carmelite, but I am not certain—and wore the
habit in her coffin.
"What the d—— are you doing with my wife?" cried the Captain, rather
thickly. "How dare you dress her up in this —— trumpery, you—you
cheating old witch; and what's that candle doing in her hand?"
I think he was a little startled, for the spectacle was grisly
enough. The dead lady was arrayed in this strange brown robe, and in
her rigid fingers, as in a socket, with the large wooden beads and
cross wound round it, burned a wax candle, shedding its white light
over the sharp features of the corpse. Moll Doyle was not to be put
down by the Captain, whom she hated, and accordingly, in her phrase,
"he got as good as he gave." And the Captain's wrath waxed fiercer,
and he chucked the wax taper from the dead hand, and was on the point
of flinging it at the old serving-woman's head.
"The holy candle, you sinner!" cried she.
"I've a mind to make you eat it, you beast," cried the Captain.
But I think he had not known before what it was, for he subsided a
little sulkily, and he stuffed his hand with the candle (quite extinct
by this time) into his pocket, and said he—
"You know devilish well you had no business going on with y-y-your
d—— witch-craft about my poor wife, without my leave—you do—and
you'll please take off that d—— brown pinafore, and get her decently
into her coffin, and I'll pitch your devil's waxlight into the sink."
And the Captain stalked out of the room.
"An' now her poor sowl's in prison, you wretch, be the mains o' ye;
an' may yer own be shut into the wick o' that same candle, till it's
burned out, ye savage."
"I'd have you ducked for a witch, for two-pence," roared the Captain
up the staircase, with his hand on the banisters, standing on the
lobby. But the door of the chamber of death clapped angrily, and he
went down to the parlour, where he examined the holy candle for a
while, with a tipsy gravity, and then with something of that
reverential feeling for the symbolic, which is not uncommon in rakes
and scamps, he thoughtfully locked it up in a press, where were
accumulated all sorts of obsolete rubbish—soiled packs of cards,
disused tobacco pipes, broken powder flasks, his military sword, and a
dusky bundle of the "Flash Songster," and other questionable
He did not trouble the dead lady's room any more. Being a volatile man
it is probable that more cheerful plans and occupations began to
entertain his fancy.
My Uncle Watson Visits Wauling
So the poor lady was buried decently, and Captain Walshawe reigned
alone for many years at Wauling. He was too shrewd and too experienced
by this time to run violently down the steep hill that leads to ruin.
So there was a method in his madness; and after a widowed career of
more than forty years, he, too, died at last with some guineas in his
Forty years and upwards is a great edax rerum, and a wonderful
chemical power. It acted forcibly upon the gay Captain Walshawe. Gout
supervened, and was no more conducive to temper than to enjoyment, and
made his elegant hands lumpy at all the small joints, and turned them
slowly into crippled claws. He grew stout when his exercise was
interfered with, and ultimately almost corpulent. He suffered from
what Mr. Holloway calls "bad legs," and was wheeled about in a great
leathern-backed chair, and his infirmities went on accumulating with
I am sorry to say, I never heard that he repented, or turned his
thoughts seriously to the future. On the contrary, his talk grew
fouler, and his fun ran upon his favourite sins, and his temper waxed
more truculent. But he did not sink into dotage. Considering his
bodily infirmities, his energies and his malignities, which were many
and active, were marvellously little abated by time. So he went on to
the close. When his temper was stirred, he cursed and swore in a way
that made decent people tremble. It was a word and a blow with him;
the latter, luckily, not very sure now. But he would seize his crutch
and make a swoop or a pound at the offender, or shy his
medicine-bottle, or his tumbler, at his head.
It was a peculiarity of Captain Walshawe, that he, by this time, hated
nearly everybody. My uncle, Mr. Watson, of Haddlestone, was cousin to
the Captain, and his heir-at-law. But my uncle had lent him money on
mortgage of his estates, and there had been a treaty to sell, and
terms and a price were agreed upon, in "articles" which the lawyers
said were still in force.
I think the ill-conditioned Captain bore him a grudge for being richer
than he, and would have liked to do him an ill turn. But it did not
lie in his way; at least while he was living.
My uncle Watson was a Methodist, and what they call a "classleader";
and, on the whole, a very good man. He was now near fifty—grave, as
beseemed his profession—somewhat dry—and a little severe,
perhaps—but a just man.
A letter from the Penlynden doctor reached him at Haddlestone,
announcing the death of the wicked old Captain; and suggesting his
attendance at the funeral, and the expediency of his being on the spot
to look after things at Wauling. The reasonableness of this striking
my good uncle, he made his journey to the old house in Lancashire
incontinently, and reached it in time for the funeral.
My uncle, whose traditions of the Captain were derived from his
mother, who remembered him in his slim, handsome youth—in shorts,
cocked-hat and lace, was amazed at the bulk of the coffin which
contained his mortal remains; but the lid being already screwed down,
he did not see the face of the bloated old sinner.
In the Parlour
What I relate, I had from the lips of my uncle, who was a truthful
man, and not prone to fancies.
The day turning out awfully rainy and tempestuous, he persuaded the
doctor and the attorney to remain for the night at Wauling.
There was no will—the attorney was sure of that; for the Captain's
enmities were perpetually shifting, and he could never quite make up
his mind, as to how best to give effect to a malignity whose direction
was constantly being modified. He had had instructions for drawing a
will a dozen times over. But the process had always been arrested by
the intending testator.
Search being made, no will was found. The papers, indeed, were all
right, with one important exception: the leases were nowhere to be
seen. There were special circumstances connected with several of the
principal tenancies on the estate—unnecessary here to detail—which
rendered the loss of these documents one of very serious moment, and
even of very obvious danger.
My uncle, therefore, searched strenuously. The attorney was at his
elbow, and the doctor helped with a suggestion now and then. The old
serving-man seemed an honest deaf creature, and really knew nothing.
My uncle Watson was very much perturbed. He fancied—but this possibly
was only fancy—that he had detected for a moment a queer look in the
attorney's face; and from that instant it became fixed in his mind
that he knew all about the leases. Mr. Watson expounded that evening
in the parlour to the doctor, the attorney, and the deaf servant.
Ananias and Sapphira figured in the foreground; and the awful nature
of fraud and theft, of tampering in anywise with the plain rule of
honesty in matters pertaining to estates, etc., were pointedly dwelt
upon; and then came a long and strenuous prayer, in which he entreated
with fervour and aplomb that the hard heart of the sinner who had
abstracted the leases might be softened or broken in such a way as to
lead to their restitution; or that, if he continued reserved and
contumacious, it might at least be the will of Heaven to bring him to
public justice and the documents to light. The fact is, that he was
praying all this time at the attorney.
When these religious exercises were over, the visitors retired to
their rooms, and my Uncle Watson wrote two or three pressing letters
by the fire. When his task was done, it had grown late; the candles
were flaring in their sockets, and all in bed, and, I suppose, asleep,
The fire was nearly out, he chilly, and the flame of the candles
throbbing strangely in their sockets, shed alternate glare and shadow
round the old wainscoted room and its quaint furniture. Outside were
all the wild thunder and piping of the storm; and the rattling of
distant windows sounded through the passages, and down the stairs,
like angry people astir in the house.
My Uncle Watson belonged to a sect who by no means rejected the
supernatural, and whose founder, on the contrary, has sanctioned
ghosts in the most emphatic way. He was glad therefore to remember,
that in prosecuting his search that day, he had seen some six inches
of wax candle in the press in the parlour; for he had no fancy to be
overtaken by darkness in his present situation. He had no time to
lose; and taking the bunch of keys—of which he was now master—he
soon fitted the lock, and secured the candle—a treasure in his
circumstances; and lighting it, he stuffed it into the socket of one
of the expiring candles, and extinguishing the other, he looked round
the room in the steady light reassured. At the same moment, an unusual
violent gust of the storm blew a handful of gravel against the parlour
window, with a sharp rattle that startled him in the midst of the roar
and hubbub; and the flame of the candle itself was agitated by the
My uncle walked up to bed, guarding his candle with his hand, for the
lobby windows were rattling furiously, and he disliked the idea of
being left in the dark more than ever.
His bedroom was comfortable, though old-fashioned. He shut and bolted
the door. There was a tall looking-glass opposite the foot of his
four-poster, on the dressing-table between the windows. He tried to
make the curtains meet, but they would not draw; and like many a
gentleman in a like perplexity, he did not possess a pin, nor was
there one in the huge pincushion beneath the glass.
He turned the face of the mirror away therefore, so that its back was
presented to the bed, pulled the curtains together, and placed a chair
against them, to prevent their falling open again. There was a good
fire, and a reinforcement of round coal and wood inside the fender. So
he piled it up to ensure a cheerful blaze through the night, and
placing a little black mahogany table, with the legs of a satyr,
beside the bed, and his candle upon it, he got between the sheets, and
laid his red nightcapped head upon his pillow, and disposed himself to
The first thing that made him uncomfortable was a sound at the foot of
his bed, quite distinct in a momentary lull of the storm. It was only
the gentle rustle and rush of the curtains, which fell open again; and
as his eyes opened, he saw them resuming their perpendicular
dependence, and sat up in his bed almost expecting to see something
uncanny in the aperture.
There was nothing, however, but the dressing-table, and other dark
furniture, and the window-curtains faintly undulating in the violence
of the storm. He did not care to get up, therefore—the fire being
bright and cheery—to replace the curtains by a chair, in the position
in which he had left them, anticipating possibly a new recurrence of
the relapse which had startled him from his incipient doze.
So he got to sleep in a little while again, but he was disturbed by a
sound, as he fancied, at the table on which stood the candle. He could
not say what it was, only that he wakened with a start, and lying so
in some amaze, he did distinctly hear a sound which startled him a
good deal, though there was nothing necessarily supernatural in it. He
described it as resembling what would occur if you fancied a thinnish
table-leaf, with a convex warp in it, depressed the reverse way, and
suddenly with a spring recovering its natural convexity. It was a
loud, sudden thump, which made the heavy candlestick jump, and there
was an end, except that my uncle did not get again into a doze for ten
minutes at least.
The next time he awoke, it was in that odd, serene way that sometimes
occurs. We open our eyes, we know not why, quite placidly, and are on
the instant wide awake. He had had a nap of some duration this time,
for his candle-flame was fluttering and flaring, in articulo, in the
silver socket. But the fire was still bright and cheery; so he popped
the extinguisher on the socket, and almost at the same time there came
a tap at his door, and a sort of crescendo "hush-sh-sh!" Once more my
uncle was sitting up, scared and perturbed, in his bed. He
recollected, however, that he had bolted his door; and such inveterate
materialists are we in the midst of our spiritualism, that this
reassured him, and he breathed a deep sigh, and began to grow
tranquil. But after a rest of a minute or two, there came a louder and
sharper knock at his door; so that instinctively he called out, "Who's
there?" in a loud, stern key. There was no sort of response, however.
The nervous effect of the start subsided; and I think my uncle must
have remembered how constantly, especially on a stormy night, these
creaks or cracks which simulate all manner of goblin noises, make
themselves naturally audible.
The Extinguisher Is Lifted
After a while, then, he lay down with his back turned toward that side
of the bed at which was the door, and his face toward the table on
which stood the massive old candlestick, capped with its extinguisher,
and in that position he closed his eyes. But sleep would not revisit
them. All kinds of queer fancies began to trouble him—some of them I
He felt the point of a finger, he averred, pressed most distinctly on
the tip of his great toe, as if a living hand were between his sheets,
and making a sort of signal of attention or silence. Then again he
felt something as large as a rat make a sudden bounce in the middle of
his bolster, just under his head. Then a voice said "Oh!" very gently,
close at the back of his head. All these things he felt certain of,
and yet investigation led to nothing. He felt odd little cramps
stealing now and then about him; and then, on a sudden, the middle
finger of his right hand was plucked backwards, with a light playful
jerk that frightened him awfully.
Meanwhile the storm kept singing, and howling, and ha-ha-hooing
hoarsely among the limbs of the old trees and the chimney-pots; and my
Uncle Watson, although he prayed and meditated as was his wont when he
lay awake, felt his heart throb excitedly, and sometimes thought he
was beset with evil spirits, and at others that he was in the early
stage of a fever.
He resolutely kept his eyes closed, however, and, like St. Paul's
shipwrecked companions, wished for the day. At last another little
doze seems to have stolen upon his senses, for he awoke quietly and
completely as before—opening his eyes all at once, and seeing
everything as if he had not slept for a moment.
The fire was still blazing redly—nothing uncertain in the light—the
massive silver candlestick, topped with its tall extinguisher, stood
on the centre of the black mahogany table as before; and, looking by
what seemed a sort of accident to the apex of this, he beheld
something which made him quite misdoubt the evidence of his eyes.
He saw the extinguisher lifted by a tiny hand, from beneath, and a
small human face, no bigger than a thumb-nail, with nicely
proportioned features, peep from beneath it. In this Lilliputian
countenance was such a ghastly consternation as horrified my uncle
unspeakably. Out came a little foot then and there, and a pair of wee
legs, in short silk stockings and buckled shoes, then the rest of the
figure; and, with the arms holding about the socket, the little legs
stretched and stretched, hanging about the stem of the candlestick
till the feet reached the base, and so down the satyr-like leg of the
table, till they reached the floor, extending elastically, and
strangely enlarging in all proportions as they approached the ground,
where the feet and buckles were those of a well-shaped, full grown
man, and the figure tapering upward until it dwindled to its original
fairy dimensions at the top, like an object seen in some strangely
Standing upon the floor he expanded, my amazed uncle could not tell
how, into his proper proportions; and stood pretty nearly in profile
at the bedside, a handsome and elegantly shaped young man, in a bygone
military costume, with a small laced, three-cocked hat and plume on
his head, but looking like a man going to be hanged—in unspeakable
He stepped lightly to the hearth, and turned for a few seconds very
dejectedly with his back toward the bed and the mantel-piece, and he
saw the hilt of his rapier glittering in the firelight; and then
walking across the room he placed himself at the dressing-table,
visible through the divided curtains at the foot of the bed. The fire
was blazing still so brightly that my uncle saw him as distinctly as
if half a dozen candles were burning.
The Visitation Culminates
The looking-glass was an old-fashioned piece of furniture, and had a
drawer beneath it. My uncle had searched it carefully for the papers
in the daytime; but the silent figure pulled the drawer quite out,
pressed a spring at the side, disclosing a false receptable behind it,
and from this he drew a parcel of papers tied together with pink tape.
All this time my uncle was staring at him in a horrified state,
neither winking nor breathing, and the apparition had not once given
the smallest intimation of consciousness that a living person was in
the same room. But now, for the first time, it turned its livid stare
full upon my uncle with a hateful smile of significance, lifting up
the little parcel of papers between his slender finger and thumb. Then
he made a long, cunning wink at him, and seemed to blow out one of his
cheeks in a burlesque grimace, which, but for the horrific
circumstances, would have been ludicrous. My uncle could not tell
whether this was really an intentional distortion or only one of those
horrid ripples and deflections which were constantly disturbing the
proportions of the figure, as if it were seen through some unequal and
The figure now approached the bed, seeming to grow exhausted and
malignant as it did so. My uncle's terror nearly culminated at this
point, for he believed it was drawing near him with an evil purpose.
But it was not so; for the soldier, over whom twenty years seemed to
have passed in his brief transit to the dressing-table and back again,
threw himself into a great high-backed arm-chair of stuffed leather at
the far side of the fire, and placed his heels on the fender. His feet
and legs seemed indistinctly to swell, and swathings showed themselves
round them, and they grew into something enormous, and the upper
figure swayed and shaped itself into corresponding proportions, a
great mass of corpulence, with a cadaverous and malignant face, and
the furrows of a great old age, and colourless glassy eyes; and with
these changes, which came indefinitely but rapidly as those of a
sunset cloud, the fine regimentals faded away, and a loose, gray,
woollen drapery, somehow, was there in its stead; and all seemed to be
stained and rotten, for swarms of worms seemed creeping in and out,
while the figure grew paler and paler, till my uncle, who liked his
pipe, and employed the simile naturally, said the whole effigy grew to
the colour of tobacco ashes, and the clusters of worms into little
wriggling knots of sparks such as we see running over the residuum of
a burnt sheet of paper. And so with the strong draught caused by the
fire, and the current of air from the window, which was rattling in
the storm, the feet seemed to be drawn into the fire-place, and the
whole figure, light as ashes, floated away with them, and disappeared
with a whisk up the capacious old chimney.
It seemed to my uncle that the fire suddenly darkened and the air grew
icy cold, and there came an awful roar and riot of tempest, which
shook the old house from top to base, and sounded like the yelling of
a blood-thirsty mob on receiving a new and long-expected victim.
Good Uncle Watson used to say, "I have been in many situations of fear
and danger in the course of my life, but never did I pray with so much
agony before or since; for then, as now, it was clear beyond a cavil
that I had actually beheld the phantom of an evil spirit."
Now there are two curious circumstances to be observed in this
relation of my uncle's, who was, as I have said, a perfectly veracious
First—The wax candle which he took from the press in the parlour and
burnt at his bedside on that horrible night was unquestionably,
according to the testimony of the old deaf servant, who had been fifty
years at Wauling, that identical piece of "holy candle" which had
stood in the fingers of the poor lady's corpse, and concerning which
the old Irish crone, long since dead, had delivered the curious curse
I have mentioned against the Captain.
Secondly—Behind the drawer under the looking-glass, he did actually
discover a second but secret drawer, in which were concealed the
identical papers which he had suspected the attorney of having made
away with. There were circumstances, too, afterwards disclosed which
convinced my uncle that the old man had deposited them there
preparatory to burning them, which he had nearly made up his mind to
Now, a very remarkable ingredient in this tale of my Uncle Watson was
this, that so far as my father, who had never seen Captain Walshawe in
the course of his life, could gather, the phantom had exhibited a
horrible and grotesque, but unmistakeable resemblance to that defunct
scamp in the various stages of his long life.
Wauling was sold in the year 1837, and the old house shortly after
pulled down, and a new one built nearer to the river. I often wonder
whether it was rumoured to be haunted, and, if so, what stories were
current about it. It was a commodious and stanch old house, and withal
rather handsome; and its demolition was certainly suspicious.